Looking for love in all the wrong places?
I see your face in everyone I meet
I'm avoiding the corners
I'm avoiding your name
I know that I loved you
But I loved you in vain
And this city's too small for two
My melancholy friend and you.."
"Tears All Over Town" A Girl Called Eddy
As Spring has sprung, the heart turns to thoughts of love and our fair metropolis is considered one of the most romantic places in the United States, if not on the entire planet. Though a big city by most accounts, our City by the Bay tends to display all the elements of the worst sort of small town when it comes to matters of the heart…where else can you go out on a first date, in the middle of the week no less, and have a former flame pass by the window of the little out of the way dinner spot you painstakingly labored to select? Or how many times has a "random" hook-up turned out to be the best friend of your former roommate's girlfriend? Such contrived- sounding relationships might seem far-fetched to an outsider, but ask anyone who's lived here for more than a few months and you'll see this is the rule and not the exception.
Having spent the better part of almost five years in this place and hurtling quickly toward my 28th year, I've come to the sad realization that the horror stories are true; the dating scene (or lack thereof) in San Francisco is no urban myth, but a painfully-grim reality for the thousands of twenty and thirty somethings who have chosen to call this place home.
We've heard it all before…this is a city that should nurture a thriving and vibrant dating culture. Few places in the U.S. can rival the Bay Area in terms of the depth of its cultural offerings and its access to outdoor recreational opportunities. The physical beauty of the area is legendary. In a recent issue of Men's Health, a Metro Grades survey revealed Fremont, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose to be among the most well-educated cities in the country*. In other words, there are a lot of good reasons that the people who live here who should be out, meeting and experiencing each other, but for some reason there’s a massive "system failure" (to use the parlance of our C.S. friends at Stanford and Berkeley) when it comes to what should be the (relatively) easy task of securing a date.
So the question then becomes…why? What is causing the singles scene in San Francisco to resemble a middle school dance with all the boys standing by the gym door wanting to sneak away and the girls standing across the floor, gossiping amongst themselves?
There don't appear to be any easy answers. To my eyes, there are several factors at play that contribute to otherwise normal, good looking, and successful men and women spending an inordinate amount of time beating their heads against the wall and asking the time honored relationship query of, "What's wrong with me?"
One of the most obvious factors seems to be the transient nature of the city. San Francisco was founded by people on the lookout for quick riches and when the gold was gone, so were they (don't apply this analogy to the here and now…the current creek beds haven't been picked clean just yet). Quite the contrary, there's lot of gold to be found…it's just that a lot of it tends to move downstream before it's uncovered. Think about who you know in the city…most of us, even if we've been here for a few years, can count on two hands the born and raised San Franciscans we know. Everyone else (myself included) arrives from all over the country and many stay for a couple of years to act crazy in a beautiful, forward thinking city and then head off to grad school or back to wherever they came from to settle down and start their "real" lives.
Now there's no fault to be assigned to that line of thought…but for those of us who are semi-permanent residents, this causes a rather violent upheaval of the dating pool on a fairly regular basis. When people breeze into town with the fun mentality clicked to the "on" position and knowing they have a set amount of time in which to get it all out of their systems, it cuts the number of real dating prospects significantly.
A second and very notorious factor is the existence of cliques. They manifest themselves here in all of their ridiculous forms, breaking down along lines of class, race, neighborhood, education, profession…you name it, and there's some faction built to spec. Now, this kind of thing happens everywhere for certain, but it becomes more pronounced in San Francisco because numbers wise, it's just not that big of a place and,unlike New York City, for example, you can't cross town to reinvent yourself (or hide away) because the mood hits. Don't get me wrong…everyone likes to feel comfortable and we all like the ease and peace of mind that comes from being around others like ourselves. But if you examine the ways in which people willingly self-select themselves in to cliques, and thereby remove themselves from the scene at large, you start to see the problem. It's similar to the problems that come with raising Dalmatians; sure, they look nice, but due to the complications of inbreeding, they aren't all that fun to be around unless you're just like them. Examples of this sort of behavior abound. No doubt you've heard some variation of the following before:
"Dude, I can't date her…she's B & T!"
"I mean, why would you want to go out in the Haight? It's all the way across town and besides, the guys don't shower and their hair is long. Let's just go to Balboa."
"I only go to the Mission for the food."
"I can't dig on the pretty boy and daddy's girl frat scene over in the Marina…how fake can you get? I get enough of that on the GAP and Banana billboards."
"$15 cab ride or 5 minute walk…the beer's just as cheap here…and the girls are better looking."
"I only date bankers and lawyers." (Good city for those on that track, then)
And so on and so forth. It's enough to make even the most extroverted among us want to stay home on a Saturday night and read "Missed Connections" on Craigslist.
A third issue is the "What's your age?" game. The most recent census revealed a tremendously high number of "never married" people in their mid-twenty to mid thirties in the Bay Area. Part of that is almost surely skewed by the aforementioned way in which people cycle in and out of town. However, the professional pressures that seem to be prevalent here along with the self-motivated and highly intelligent population, drive people to seek a high level of financial and career well being, in part because of the high cost of living and in part because that’s what the "group think" mentality stresses. Seen through this light, it's easy to see how having a relationship can start to slip down the ladder in terms of importance. In a perfect world, nobody would have to sacrifice a successful career for a successful relationship; reality, however, tends to get in the way of our best intentions. Time waits for no man (or woman) and certain realities begin to assert themselves as we grow older. The age issue is all too often simply portrayed as the biological clock of "desperate" women ticking away, but let's face it…very few of us want to spend the rest of our lives doing it on our own and the "work hard, play hard" lifestyle starts to lose its luster when you keep coming home to an empty apartment and the only person who wants to hear about your accomplishments is your mom.
Well, what to do about it then? Probably the most important thing (which is no great revelation) is for people to simply pursue their personal interests as much as possible. If you like jazz and you can't get a friend to tag along with you to Yoshi's, go solo. Nobody’s going to take a second look at you if you're making your way through MOMA by yourself or if you're lost in the stacks at Borders (hell, Barnes and Noble in New York was just recently cited in a poll as the best place to get a date). Don't fall into the trap that says doing something by yourself makes you a loser. It's a terrible frame of mind to be in; besides, you can't be happy with anyone else if you're not happy with yourself, so make time for you. You'd probably be surprised at how many people you can meet if you give yourself a chance to be you doing what YOU want to do.
When you do have friends on hand, though, help each other push your boundaries a little. Take a class (really…stop saying you will and go do it)! CCSF and Berkeley Extension, among many others, offer classes in language instruction, cooking, photography, and almost too many other things to mention here that are worth checking out. Instead of going to a bar on a Friday night, go take in a play or head to the symphony. Some things are certainly better to do with a good friend by your side.
On the topic of friends, many of us meet potential dating interests though people we already know. It tends to be a little more natural (unless, God forbid, you get set up on a blind date). For lack of a better way of putting it, plan events that will increase your chances of meeting new and interesting people through those who already know you (and who can vouch for how great you are). Organize a monthly dinner club. Volunteer with a group through One Brick, or at Glide Memorial, or at a senior center. Make every third Wednesday indie-movie night followed by coffee or beers…whatever it is, build activities that are attractive to a wide range of people and let your friends be the draw for others.
Lastly, don't be a hermit and don't feel like you're the only one dealing with the reality of being single. Nobody emerges emotionally unscathed from a landscape like the one we face here, so take solace in that fact. It's definitely NOT you. So don't let it get you down. I'm not a big believer in the clichés that tend to flow from the mouths of the happily involved among us, but even I have to admit there is some truth to the idea that things happen when you are ready for them and that there is little you can do to force fate's hand in that regard. Mick and the boys once sang, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you'll get what you need." That hurts when you've just hung up from the call informing you that there will be no second date, but just consider that dumping to be a badge of honor, move on down the line (you can't win unless you're in the game to start with, remember), and apply what you've learned to make yourself better off in the long run. Relationships start and end due to timing (ah, that well worn cliché again!) coincidence, convenience, and a host of other factors, so don't overanalyze…eyes on tomorrow, not mind on yesterday.
None of these conclusions are groundbreaking and I'm sure many of you have had these or similar realizations on your own, but keep in mind that there are lots of random hearts out there looking this spring...and who knows, a few months from now, you might be celebrating a summer love of your own.
(* = Criteria used in the Men's Health rankings factored in the number of bachelor's degree per capita, the number of universities in the area, inhabitants' SAT scores, state creativity scores as assessed by Catalytix and the Richard Florida Creativity Group, and the number of Nobel Prize winners for physics and medicine born within a town's borders.)